It’s always going to be a big deal when the last time two teams played it was a national title decider.
It was December 2021 when the Badgers led by their incredible senior class got over the hump and won a five-set thriller against the Nebraska Cornhuskers to win their first ever NCAA title in program history.
“It was one of the all-time epic volleyball matches there has ever been,” UW head coach Kelly Sheffield admitted.
And while many of the key players from the Wisconsin side are gone, Nebraska returns many of its key players, many of whom are looking for revenge and a title shot of their own as the No. 1 Huskers (10-0 Big Ten, 18-1 overall) come into Madison for a must-see clash against the new-look No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers (9-1, 15-3) that will go a long way in deciding who wins the Big Ten title — and maybe even national title.
The Huskers come into Madison rolling, on the back of an 11-game winning streak where they haven’t dropped a set in their last six matches.
Led by an outstanding senior class of outside hitter Madi Kubik, setter Nicklin Hames and defensive specialist Kenzie Knuckles — and the addition Penn State transfer Kaitlyn Hord, another senior — the Huskers have looked unbeatable in the early days of the season.
However, that senior class has not tasted victory against Wisconsin. While Sheffield played down the focus on a streak or the last contest between the two teams, Nebraska has not beaten the Badgers since 2018.
But the Huskers roll in like Wisconsin running a 6-2 rotation this year, taking advantage of their incredible hitters as well. With Hames and sophomore Kennedi Orr playing point guard at setter, Kubik leads the way attacking with 3.32 kills per set. Sophomore outside hitter Whitney Lauenstein has 3.08 per set.
Although the Huskers are lights out in attack, Sheffield said they are going to be hard to score against and likely the Badgers’ attack biggest test yet. On the season, the Huskers have held opponents to .119 hitting, with Hord leading the team with 1.56 blocks per set.
Another player to be wary of is freshman middle blocker Bekka Allick, who is coming along in the last few weeks to make a big impact. The 6-foot-4 Lincoln-native won the Big Ten Freshman of the Week nod for her play last weekend and is firing home 2.01 kills per set as she’s gotten into the rotation.
Sheffield also noted the Huskers pass “better than anyone in the conference,” with a lot of thanks there from Knuckles and sophomore libero Lexi Rodriguez, who is arguably the best libero in the conference.
So how will Wisconsin look to get through this? The Badgers’ size up front and blocking ability will likely be key in this match. Another key will be limiting service errors which have sometimes plagued UW and led to momentum killing moments all season.
While Rettke, Hilley, Loberg, Barnes and Civita aren’t walking through that door, head coach Kelly Sheffield thinks the team is on the right path to gelling and getting to a peak.
“(The team) is not where we’re going to be yet, but it’s getting closer,” Sheffield said.
In their last match against Michigan, the team responded to a dropped set that they let slip by rattling off three straight sets. Junior Devyn Robinson had her best match of the season and brought a lot of energy to the match, but the biggest impact was from Jade Demps.
Demps was a crucial player down the stretch in the national title run, but has not seen as much as the floor this year. Sheffield said that didn’t make her head drop, as she has been key to the team still in her preparation for matches. When she came in and hit crucial kills after subbing in for Sarah Franklin in the third set, Sheffield noticed a shift.
“She changed the energy of our group,” Sheffield said. “All of a sudden, they’re letting loose, having fun.”
Sheffield did say it was not the fault of Franklin in that instance and that Demps could have been put in for any of the outside attackers for UW. But his point — and the impressive play of a reserve player — highlights that even without all faces that won the national title in 2021, the team is still deep.
The Badgers will need all that depth as they take on a Nebraska team hungry for a conference title of their own in a match that will go a long way in deciding who will wear the Big Ten crown.
First serve at the Field House is at 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, with the match being aired on Big Ten Network.